My latest story for Edible Milwaukee is out in the world. Spices, just in time for the holidays! It’s also where I magically trace the European settlement of Wisconsin to the spice trade.
Few things conjure the spirit of the holidays better than the scent of cinnamon, cloves, vanilla and nutmeg. These flavors have long been popular with Milwaukeeans. In 1846, Water Street grocer Frederick Wardner announced in the Milwaukee Daily Courier that he had just returned with the largest stock of dry goods and groceries, with special note made of ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves and pepper, that “has ever been exhibited to the good people of Wisconsin.”
There’s something mystical about the idea of spices, invoking images of brightly colored mounds of seeds, flowers, and bark in an Eastern bazaar. While the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in the kitchen, herbs and spices are different. Herbs are the leaves of plants, while spices come from the roots, bark and seeds. Some plants provide both herb and spice, like cilantro, the leaves and coriander, the seeds of the cilantro plant. Most spices originate in the tropics, growing 15 degrees above or below the equator. Herbs, on the other hand, can be more temperate.
Demand for trade goods from Asia, especially spices like cinnamon and pepper, was high in the Middle Ages. But the distance and number of middlemen involved made these goods too expensive for any but the wealthiest of Europeans in the 1300s and 1400s.
The secret behind the spice trade was simple: huge demand and a tightly-controlled supply. The drive for more (and cheaper) spices drove Europeans westward in search of an alternative sea route to Asia. Among the first was Christopher Columbus who aimed for India but bumped into the Americas instead. To appease his creditors for his failure, Columbus named the New World natives he met “Indians” and their chilies “pepper,” two names that have confused people ever since.
Read more about spices and so many more delicious things at Edible Milwaukee